Spontaneous combustion blamed in Monday fire in the Aerie
July 3, 2012
Layers of plants, wood, plastic, construction materials and bark shavings spontaneously combusted Monday morning outside a house in the Aerie, causing a small fire that was quickly extinguished by the homeowner and someone staying next door as firefighters rushed to the scene.
The fire, though, was deeply concerning as the dry, hot and windy conditions continued in the area on Monday. The smoke was visible from numerous vantages in Park City and along the entryways. A smoky smell drifted from the high-altitude location to other parts of the city.
The blaze broke out beside the house at approximately 7 a.m. Firefighters, police officers, fire investigators and City Hall’s emergency manager quickly responded. The homeowner and the person next door had extinguished most of the fire with garden hoses by the time the first firefighters arrived seven minutes after a 911 call.
Steve Zwirn, a Park City Fire District battalion chief who responded, said the homeowner was taking a shower when he saw ash drifting by a window. He got out of the shower and saw the blaze. Zwirn said the fire covered approximately 150 square feet next to the house. He said a nearby wooden fence was also slightly burned. There was no damage to the house, Zwirn said.
Two fire engines and a truck designed for use in brush fires responded. Hugh Daniels, who is City Hall’s emergency manager, and at least four police officers also were at the scene.
"A little bit later in the day, when the wind was blowing, this would have been huge," Zwirn said.
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Police Chief Wade Carpenter, who also serves as City Hall’s fire marshal, said it appeared there were fertilizer pellets containing nitrogen inside the layers of material. As the layers heated and cooled, a chemical reaction would have occurred, Carpenter said, causing the spontaneous combustion.
"We think it’s just what it needed to cause that reaction . . . chemical, heat, fuel oxygen," he said.
Carpenter said a few fence posts were damaged. He estimated the damage at between $200 and $300. He said a fire caused by spontaneous combustion involving similar materials is more common on farms than on residential properties. The layers of materials had been left by a prior homeowner, the police chief said.
"This could have been a catastrophe if it had the opportunity to blow up all the way," Carpenter said.
The person staying next door who assisted with a garden hose on Monday, Grant Larson, said he was sitting outside drinking coffee when he smelled smoke. He said the flames were probably three feet high.
"We instantly ran out, grabbed hoses, hooked them up, started pouring water on it," Larson, whose mother owns the house where he is staying, said, adding, "We could see the flames. They were getting larger."
The Aerie has long been a concern for emergency planners given the layout of the neighborhood. Many houses sit next to large expanses of brush. The Aerie is also notoriously windy and there is steep terrain in the neighborhood, two factors that could make it difficult to fight a brush fire there.
A 2010 brush fire in the Aerie proved tricky to extinguish and involved firefighters bushwhacking their way to the site. A firefighting helicopter was called to the Aerie that day to douse the flames from above.
Monday’s fire broke out as the state continues to suffer terrible wildfires. There has been a haze in the air in and around Park City for several days from the fires elsewhere in Utah. Officials in Park City and Summit County have outlawed fireworks this summer in an effort to reduce the fire risk.